How China Made the Tiananmen Square Massacre Irrelevant

24 years after the government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters seemed to signal its doom, the Chinese Communist Party survives. But can it put off political reforms forever?


Tens of thousands of people attend a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park Monday, June 4, 2012 to mark the 23rd anniversary of the June 4 Chinese military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing. (Kin Cheung/AP)Today marks the 24th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square massacre, and as in previous years, the occasion will be met by a familiar pattern of events. Thousands will gather for a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park. The United States will urge China to improve its human rights record. China will tell the United States to mind its own business. And, in China itself, the anniversary will pass without any public acknowledgement of the massacre.

China has achieved the impossible: They've made Tiananmen Square irrelevant.

Though obvious today, this outcome was not considered likely in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. According to Columbia University professor Andrew Nathan, an expert on China and human rights, observers in 1989 felt that the country was on an "irreversible trend toward democracy" and that political reform would necessarily accompany the economic reforms launched a decade prior. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the demise of Chinese Communism seemed even more inevitable, part of the "End of History" milieu which characterized the era.

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As we know, the Communist Party survived intact. And it has done so, remarkably, without making the major political reforms once thought necessary to preserve its grip on the social order. In political terms, contemporary China looks almost identical to the country so convulsed by student protests in the 1980s.

In 1989, Chinese citizens lacked the right to vote, could not freely criticize the government, and faced restrictions on whom they could worship. China's press was under the strict supervision of the government and promoted no viewpoints in opposition to Communist Party power. In 2013, Chinese citizens still can't vote, freely criticize the government, or worship whomever they please (just look at what happened with Falun Gong). And while the Internet has brought forth a wider range of viewpoints, open criticism of Communist Party rule is still not tolerated.

Focusing solely on the similarities, though, misses the larger point: China is a much better place to live now for most people. Consider the original aims of the protesters; they wanted democracy, famously hoisting up a model of the Statue of Liberty just days before the crackdown, but they also sought more concrete goals such as the right to choose their own profession following graduation. Two and a half decades later, young Chinese people now have far more freedom to pursue the career of their choice, travel abroad, and marry whomever they choose (provided their spouse is of the opposite sex, though China has also become much more tolerant of homosexuality in recent years). Far more Chinese citizens than before have access to the country's social safety net, including a rudimentary health care system, and a much greater proportion of the China's population can realistically obtain a university education. These advancements do not excuse China of its continued human rights violations, but they do explain how the Party can remain popular despite repression, corruption, and other problems.

Over the past three decades, since Deng Xiaoping first launched economic reforms, China has successfully managed to divorce economic change from political change, a trend that continues to the present day. Is this trend sustainable? Premier Li Keqiang recently made waves by announcing China's intention to pursue serious economic reforms, aimed at promoting urbanization and tackling income inequality. At the same time, Xi Jinping criticized political revisionism and a prominent Party newspaper wrote that obeying China's constitution was not appropriate for the country.  Nathan noted that China's political system, particularly with regard to corruption, suffers from constant strain. But, he added, he'd "hesitate to say that the Party is doomed". If there's one lesson from the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, it's that betting against the Communist Party's survival has proven people wrong before.